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Nothing challenges our understanding of infrastructure better than a crisis, and we have a big one now in Houston. We do with every giant storm, of course. New York is still recovering from Sandy and New Orleans from Katrina. Reforms and adaptations always follow, as civilization learns from experience.

Look at aviation, for example. Houston is the 4th largest city in the U.S. and George Bush International Airport (aka IAH) is a major hub for United Airlines. For the last few days traffic there has been sphinctered down to emergency flights alone. You can see how this looks on FlightAware’s Miserymap:

Go there and click on the blue play button to see how flight cancellations have played over time, and how the flood in Houston has affected Dallas as well. Click on the airport’s donut to see what routes are most affected. Frequent fliers like myself rely on tools like this one, made possible by a collection of digital technologies working over the Internet.

The airport itself is on Houston’s north side, and not flooded. Its main problem instead has been people. Countless workers have been unable to come in because they’re trapped in the flood, busy helping neighbors or barely starting to deal with lives of their own and others that have been inconvenienced, ruined or in sudden need of large repair.

Aviation just one of modern civilization’s infrastructures. Roads are another. Early in the flood, when cars were first stranded on roads, Google Maps, which gets its traffic information from cell phones, showed grids of solid red lines on the city’s flooded streets. Now those same streets are blank, because the cell phones have departed and the cars aren’t moving.

The cell phone system itself, however, has been one of the stars in the Houston drama. Harvey shows progress on emergency communications since Katrina, says a Wired headline from yesterday. Only 4% of the areas cells were knocked out.

Right now the flood waters are at their record heights, or even rising. Learnings about extant infrastructures have already commenced, and will accumulate as the city drains and dries. It should help to have a deeper understanding of what infrastructure really is, and what it’s doing where it is, than we have so far.

I say that because infrastructure is still new as a concept. As a word, infrastructure has only been in common use since the 1960s:

In The Etymology of Infrastructure and the Infrastructure of the InternetStephen Lewis writes,

Infrastructure indeed entered the English language as a loan word from French in which it had been a railroad engineering term.  A 1927 edition of the Oxford indeed mentioned the word in the context of “… the tunnels, bridges, culverts, and ‘infrastructure work’ of the French railroads.”  After World War II, “infrastructure” reemerged as in-house jargon within NATO, this time referring to fixed installations necessary for the operations of armed forces and to capital investments considered necessary to secure the security of Europe…

Within my own memory the use of the word “infrastructure” had spilled into the contexts of urban management and regions national development and into the private sector… used to refer to those massive capital investments (water, subways, roads, bridges, tunnels, schools, hospitals, etc.) necessary to city’s economy and the lives of its inhabitants and businesses enterprises but too massive and too critical to be conceived, implemented, and run at a profit or to be trusted to the private sector…

In recent years, in the United States at least, infrastructure is a word widely used but an aspect of economic life and social cohesion known more by its collapse and abandonment and raffling off to the private sector than by its implementation, well-functioning, and expansion.

As Steve also mentions in that piece, he and I are among the relatively small number of people (at least compared to those occupying the familiar academic disciplines) who have paid close attention to the topic for some time.

The top dog in this pack (at least for me) is Brett Frischmann, the Villanova Law professor whose book Infrastructure: The Social Value of Shared Resources (Oxford, 2013) anchors the small and still young canon of work on the topic. Writes Brett,

Infrastructure resources entail long term commitments with deep consequences for the public. Infrastructures are a prerequisite for economic and social development. Infrastructures shape complex systems of human activity, including economic, cultural, and political systems. That is, infrastructures affect the behaviour of individuals, firms, households, and other organizations by providing and shaping the available opportunities of these actors to participate in these systems and to interact with each other.

The emphasis is mine, because I am curious about how shaping works. Specifically, How does infrastructure shape all those things—and each of us as well?

Here is a good example of people being shaped, in this case by mobile phones:

I shot that photo on my own phone in a New York subway a few months ago. As you see, everybody in that car is fully preoccupied with their personal rectangle. These people are not the same as they were ten or even five years ago. Nor are the “firms, households and other organizations” in which they participate. Nor is the subway itself, now that all four major mobile phone carriers cover every station in the city. At good speeds too:

We don’t know if Marshall McLuhan said “we shape our tools and then our tools shape us,” but it was clearly one of his core teachings (In fact the line comes from Father John Culkin, SJ, a Professor of Communication at Fordham and a colleague of McLuhan’s. Whether or not Culkin got it from McLuhan we’ll never know.) As aphorisms go, it’s a close relative to the subtitle of McLuhan’s magnum opus, Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man (Berkeley, 1964, 1994, 2003). The two are compressed into his most quoted line, “the medium is the message,” which says that every medium changes us while also extending us.

In The Medium is the Massage: an Inventory of Effects (Gingko, 1967, 2001), McLuhan explains it this way: “All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive… that they leave no part of us untouched unaffected, unaltered… Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments.”

Specifically, “All media are extensions of some human faculty—psychic or physical. The wheel is an extension of the foot.The book is an extension of the eye. Clothing, an extension of the skin. Electric curcuitry, an extension of the central nervous system. Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptins. The extension of any once sense alters the way we think and act—the way we perceive the world. When these things change, men change.”

He also wasn’t just talking communications media. He was talking about everything we make, which in turn make us. As Eric McLuhan (Marshall’s son and collaborator) explains in Laws of Media: The New Science (Toronto, 1988), “media” meant “everything man[kind] makes and does, every procedure, every style, every artefact, every poem, song, painting, gimmick, gadget, theory—every product of human effort.”

Chief among the laws Marshall and Eric minted is the tetrad of media effects. (A tetrad is a group of four.) It says every medium, every technology, has effects that refract in four dimensions that also affect each other. Here’s a graphic representation of them:

They apply these laws heuristically, through questions:

  1. What does a medium enhance?
  2. What does it obsolesce?
  3. What does it retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
  4. What does it reverse or flip into when pushed to its extreme (for example, by becoming ubiquitous)?

Questions are required because there can be many different effects, and many different answers. All can change. All can be argued. All can work us over.

One workover happened right here, with this blog. In fact, feeling worked over was one of the reasons I dug back into McLuhan, who I had been ignoring for decades.

Here’s the workover…

In the heyday of blogging, back in the early ’00s, this blog’s predecessor (at had about 20,000 subscribers to its RSS feed, and readers that numbered in up to dozens of thousand per day. Now it gets dozens. On a good day, maybe hundreds. What happened?

In two words, social media. When I put that in the middle of the tetrad, four answers that jumped to mind:

In the ENHANCED corner, Social media surely makes everyone more social, in the purely convivial sense of the word. Suddenly we have hundreds or thousands of “friends” (Facebook, Swarm, Instagram), “followers” (Twitter) and “contacts” (Linkedin). Never mind that we know few of their birthdays, parents names or other stuff we used to care about. We’re social with them now.

Blogging clearly got OBSOLESCED, but—far more importantly—so did the rest of journalism. And I say this as a journalist who once made a living at the profession and now, like everybody else who once did the same, now make squat. What used to be business of journalism is now the business of “content production,” because that’s what social media and its publishing co-dependents get paid by advertising robots to produce in the world. What’s more, anybody can now participate. Look at that subway car photo above. Any one of those people, or all of them, are journalists now. They write and post in journals of various kinds on social media. Some of what they produce is news, if you want to call it that. But hell, news itself is worked over completely. (More about that in a minute.)

We’ve RETRIEVED gossip, which journalism, the academy and the legal profession had obsolesced (by saying, essentially, “we’re in charge of truth and facts”). In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Harper, 2015), Yuval Noah Harari says gossip was essential for our survival as hunter-gatherers: “Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction. It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bisons.. It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest and who is a cheat.” And now we can do that with anybody and everybody, across the vast yet spaceless nowhere we call the Internet, and to hell with the old formalisms of journalism, education and law.

And social media has also clearly REVERSED us into tribes, especially in the news we produce and consume, much of it to wage verbal war with each other. Or worse. For a view of how that works, check out The Wall Street Journal‘s Red Feed / Blue Feed site, which shows the completely opposed (and hostile) views of the world that Facebook injects into the news feeds of people its algorithms consider “very liberal” or “very conservative.”

Is social media infrastructure? I suppose so. The mobile phone network certainly is. And right now we’re glad to have it, because Houston, the fourth largest city in the U.S., is suffering perhaps the worst natural disaster in the country’s history, and the cell phone system is holding up remarkably well, so far. Countless lives are being saved by it, and it will certainly remain the most essential communication system as the city recovers and rebuilds.

Meanwhile, however, it also makes sense to refract the mobile phone through the tetrad. I did that right after I shot the photo above, in this blog post. In it I said smartphones—

  • Enhance conversation
  • Obsolesce mass media (print, radio, TV, cinema, whatever)
  • Retrieve personal agency (the ability to act with effect in the world)
  • Reverse into isolation (also into lost privacy through exposure to surveillance and exploitation)

In the same graphic, it looks like this:

But why listen to me when the McLuhans were on the case almost three decades ago? This is from Gregory Sandstrom‘s “Laws of media—The four effects: A Mcluhan contribution to social epistemology” (SERCC, November 11, 2012)—

The REVERSES items might be off, the but others are right on. (Whoa: cameras!)

The problem here, however, is the tendency we have to get caught up in effects. While those are all interesting, the McLuhans want us to look below those, to causes. This is hard because effects are figures, and causes are grounds: the contexts from which figures arise. From Marshall and Eric McLuhan’s Media and Formal Cause (Neopoesis, 2011): “Novelty becomes cliché through use. And constant use creates a new hidden environment while simultaneously pushing the old invisible ground into prominence, as a new figure, clearly visible for the first time. Every innovation scraps its immediate predecessor and retrieves still older figures; it causes floods of antiquities or nostalgic art forms and stimulates the search for ‘museum pieces’.”

We see this illustrated by Isabelle Adams in her paper “What Would McLuhan Say about the Smartphone? Applying McLuhan’s Tetrad to the Smartphone” (Glocality, 2106):


Laws of Media again: “The motor car retrieved the countryside, scrapped the inner core of the city, and created suburban megalopolis. Invention is the mother of necessities, old and new.”

We tend to see it the other way around, with necessity mothering invention. It should help to learn from the McLuhans that most of what we think we need is what we invent in order to need it.

Beyond clothing, shelter and tools made of sticks and stones, all the artifacts that fill civilized life are ones most of us didn’t know we needed until some maker in our midst invented them.

And some tools—extensions of our bodies—don’t become necessities until somebody invents a new way to use them. Palm, Nokia and Blackberry all made smart phones a decade before the iPhone and the Android. Was it those two operating systems that made them everybody suddenly want one? No, apps were the inventions that mothered mass necessity for mobile phones, just like it was websites the made us need graphical browsers, which made us need personal computers connected by the Internet.

All those things are effects that the McLuhans want us to look beneath. But they don’t want us to look for the obvious causes of the this-made-that-happen kind. In Media and Formal Cause, Eric McLuhan writes:

Formal causality kicks in whenever “coming events cast their shadows before them.” Formal cause is still, in our time, hugely mysterious. The literate mind finds it is too paradoxical and irrational. It deals with environmental processes and it works outside of time. The effects—those long shadows—arrive first; the causes take a while longer.

Formal cause was one of four listed first by Aristotle:

  • Material—what something is made of.
  • Efficient—how one thing acts on another, causing change.
  • Formal—what makes the thing form a coherent whole.
  • Final—the purpose to which a thing is put.

In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan writes, “Any technology gradually creates a totally new human environment”, adding:

Environments are not passive wrappings but active processes….The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into society, but it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure.

Thus railways were a formal cause that scaled up new kinds of cities, work and leisure.  “People don’t want to know the cause of anything”, Marshall said (and Eric quotes, in Media and Formal Cause). “They do not want to know why radio caused Hitler and Gandhi alike. They do not want to know that print caused anything whatever. As users of these media, they wish merely to get inside, hoping perhaps to add another layer to their environment….”

In Media and Formal Cause, Eric also sources Jane Jacobs:

Current theory in many fields—economics, history, anthropology—assumes that cities are built upon a rural economic base. If my observations and reasoning are correct, the reverse is true: that rural economies, including agricultural work, are directly built upon city economies and city work….Rural production is literally the creation of city consumption. That is to say, city economics invent the things that are to become city imports from the rural world.

Which brings us back to Houston. What forms will it cause as we repair it?

(I’m still not done, but need to get to my next appointment. Stay tuned.)



Who Owns the Internet? — What Big Tech’s Monopoly Powers Mean for our Culture is Elizabeth Kolbert‘s review in The New Yorker of several books, one of which I’ve read: Jonathan Taplin’s Move Fast and Break Things—How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy.

The main takeaway for me, to both Elizabeth’s piece and Jon’s book, is making clear that Google and Facebook are at the heart of today’s personal data extraction industry, and that this industry defines (as well as supports) much of our lives online.

Our data, and data about us, is the crude that Facebook and Google extract, refine and sell to advertisers. This by itself would not be a Bad Thing if it were done with our clearly expressed (rather than merely implied) permission, and if we had our own valves to control personal data flows with scale across all the companies we deal with, rather than countless different valves, many worthless, buried in the settings pages of the Web’s personal data extraction systems, as well as in all the extractive mobile apps of the world.

It’s natural to look for policy solutions to the problems Jon and others visit in the books Elizabeth reviews. And there are some good regulations around already. Most notably, the GDPR in Europe has energized countless developers (some listed here) to start providing tools individuals (no longer just “consumers” or “users”) can employ to control personal data flows into the world, and how that data might be used. Even if surveillance marketers find ways around the GDPR (which some will), advertisers themselves are starting to realize that tracking people like animals only fails outright, but that the human beings who constitute the actual marketplace have mounted the biggest boycott in world history against it.

But I also worry because I consider both Facebook and Google epiphenomenal. Large and all-powerful though they may be today, they are (like all tech companies, especially ones whose B2B customers and B2C consumers are different populations—commercial broadcasters, for example) shallow and temporary effects rather than deep and enduring causes.

I say this as an inveterate participant in Silicon Valley who can name many long-gone companies that once occupied Google’s and Facebook’s locations there—and I am sure many more will occupy the same spaces in a fullness of time that will surely include at least one Next Big Thing that obsolesces advertising as we know it today online. Such as, for example, discovering that we don’t need advertising at all.

Even the biggest personal data extraction companies are also not utilities on the scale or even the importance of power and water distribution (which we need to live), or the extraction industries behind either. Nor have these companies yet benefitted from the corrective influence of fully empowered individuals and societies: voices that can be heard directly, consciously and personally, rather than mere data flows observed by machines.

That direct influence will be far more helpful than anything they’re learning now just by following our shadows and sniffing our exhaust, mostly against our wishes. (To grok how little we like being spied on, read The Tradeoff Fallacy: How Marketers are Misrepresenting American Consumers and Opening Them Up to Exploiitation, a report by Joseph Turow, Michael Hennessy and Nora Draper of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.)

Our influence will be most corrective when all personal data extraction companies become what lawyers call second parties. That’s when they agree to our terms as first partiesThese terms are in development today at Customer Commons, Kantara and elsewhere. They will prevail once they get deployed in our browsers and apps, and companies start agreeing (which they will in many cases because doing so gives them instant GDPR compliance, which is required by next May, with severe fines for noncompliance).

Meanwhile new government policies that see us only as passive victims will risk protecting yesterday from last Thursday with regulations that last decades or longer. So let’s hold off on that until we have terms of our own, start performing as first parties (on an Internet designed to support exactly that), and the GDPR takes full effect. (Not that more consumer-protecting federal regulation is going to happen in the U.S. anyway under the current administration: all the flow is in the other direction.)

By the way, I believe nobody “owns” the Internet, any more than anybody owns gravity or sunlight. For more on why, see Cluetrain’s New Clues, which David Weinberger and I put up 1.5 years ago.

Take a look at this chart:

CryptoCurrency Market Capitalizations


As Neo said, Whoa.

To help me get my head fully around all that’s going on behind that surge, or mania, or whatever it is, I’ve composed a lexicon-in-process that I’m publishing here so I can find it again. Here goes:::

Bitcoin. “A cryptocurrency and a digital payment system invented by an unknown programmer, or a group of programmers, under the name Satoshi Nakamoto. It was released as open-source software in 2009. The system is peer-to-peer, and transactions take place between users directly, without an intermediary. These transactions are verified by network nodes and recorded in a public distributed ledger called a blockchain. Since the system works without a central repository or single administrator, bitcoin is called the first decentralized digital currency.” (Wikipedia.)

Cryptocurrency. “A digital asset designed to work as a medium of exchange using cryptography to secure the transactions and to control the creation of additional units of the currency. Cryptocurrencies are a subset of alternative currencies, or specifically of digital currencies. Bitcoin became the first decentralized cryptocurrency in 2009. Since then, numerous cryptocurrencies have been created. These are frequently called altcoins, as a blend of bitcoin alternative. Bitcoin and its derivatives use decentralized control as opposed to centralized electronic money/centralized banking systems. The decentralized control is related to the use of bitcoin’s blockchain transaction database in the role of a distributed ledger.” (Wikipedia.)

“A cryptocurrency system is a network that utilizes cryptography to secure transactions in a verifiable database that cannot be changed without being noticed.” (Tim Swanson, in Consensus-as-a-service: a brief report on the emergence of permissioned, distributed ledger systems.)

Distributed ledger. Also called a shared ledger, it is “a consensus of replicated, shared, and synchronized digital data geographically spread across multiple sites, countries, or institutions.” (Wikipedia, citing a report by the UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser: Distributed Ledger Technology: beyond block chain.) A distributed ledger requires a peer-to-peer network and consensus algorithms to ensure replication across nodes. The ledger is sometimes also called a distributed database. Tim Swanson adds that a distributed ledger system is “a network that fits into a new platform category. It typically utilizes cryptocurrency-inspired technology and perhaps even part of the Bitcoin or Ethereum network itself, to verify or store votes (e.g., hashes). While some of the platforms use tokens, they are intended more as receipts and not necessarily as commodities or currencies in and of themselves.”

Blockchain.”A peer-to-peer distributed ledger forged by consensus, combined with a system for ‘smart contracts’ and other assistive technologies. Together these can be used to build a new generation of transactional applications that establishes trust, accountability and transparency at their core, while streamlining business processes and legal constraints.” (Hyperledger.)

“To use conventional banking as an analogy, the blockchain is like a full history of banking transactions. Bitcoin transactions are entered chronologically in a blockchain just the way bank transactions are. Blocks, meanwhile, are like individual bank statements. Based on the Bitcoin protocol, the blockchain database is shared by all nodes participating in a system. The full copy of the blockchain has records of every Bitcoin transaction ever executed. It can thus provide insight about facts like how much value belonged a particular address at any point in the past. The ever-growing size of the blockchain is considered by some to be a problem due to issues like storage and synchronization. On an average, every 10 minutes, a new block is appended to the block chain through mining.” (Investopedia.)

“Think of it as an operating system for marketplaces, data-sharing networks, micro-currencies, and decentralized digital communities. It has the potential to vastly reduce the cost and complexity of getting things done in the real world.” (Hyperledger.)

Permissionless system. “A permissionless system [or ledger] is one in which identity of participants is either pseudonymous or even anonymous. Bitcoin was originally designed with permissionless parameters although as of this writing many of the on-ramps and off-ramps for Bitcoin are increasingly permission-based. (Tim Swanson.)

Permissioned system. “A permissioned system -[or ledger] is one in which identity for users is whitelisted (or blacklisted) through some type of KYB or KYC procedure; it is the common method of managing identity in traditional finance.” (Tim Swanson)

Mining. “The process by which transactions are verified and added to the public ledger, known as the blockchain. (It is) also the means through which new bitcoin are released. Anyone with access to the Internet and suitable hardware can participate in mining. The mining process involves compiling recent transactions into blocks and trying to solve a computationally difficult puzzle. The participant who first solves the puzzle gets to place the next block on the block chain and claim the rewards. The rewards, which incentivize mining, are both the transaction fees associated with the transactions compiled in the block as well as newly released bitcoin.” (Investopedia.)

Ethereum. “An open-source, public, blockchain-based distributed computing platform featuring smart contract (scripting) functionality, which facilitates online contractual agreements. It provides a decentralized Turing-complete virtual machine, the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM), which can execute scripts using an international network of public nodes. Ethereum also provides a cryptocurrency token called “ether”, which can be transferred between accounts and used to compensate participant nodes for computations performed. Gas, an internal transaction pricing mechanism, is used to mitigate spam and allocate resources on the network. Ethereum was proposed in late 2013 by Vitalik Buterin, a cryptocurrency researcher and programmer. Development was funded by an online crowdsale during July–August 2014. The system went live on 30 July 2015, with 11.9 million coins “premined” for the crowdsale… In 2016 Ethereum was forked into two blockchains, as a result of the collapse of The DAO project. The two chains have different numbers of users, and the minority fork was renamed to Ethereum Classic.” (Wikipedia.)

Decentralized Autonomous Organization. This is “an organization that is run through rules encoded as computer programs called smart contracts. A DAO’s financial transaction record and program rules are maintained on a blockchain… The precise legal status of this type of business organization is unclear. The best-known example was The DAO, a DAO for venture capital funding, which was launched with $150 million in crowdfunding in June 2016 and was immediately hacked and drained of US$50 million in cryptocurrency… This approach eliminates the need to involve a bilaterally accepted trusted third party in a financial transaction, thus simplifying the sequence. The costs of a blockchain enabled transaction and of making available the associated data may be substantially lessened by the elimination of both the trusted third party and of the need for repetitious recording of contract exchanges in different records: for example, the blockchain data could in principle, if regulatory structures permitted, replace public documents such as deeds and titles. In theory, a blockchain approach allows multiple cloud computing users to enter a loosely coupled peer-to-peer smart contract collaboration.(Wikipedia)

Initial Coin Offering. “A means of crowdfunding the release of a new cryptocurrency. Generally, tokens for the new cryptocurrency are sold to raise money for technical development before the cryptocurrency is released. Unlike an initial public offering (IPO), acquisition of the tokens does not grant ownership in the company developing the new cryptocurrency. And unlike an IPO, there is little or no government regulation of an ICO.” (Chris Skinner.)

“In an ICO campaign, a percentage of the cryptocurrency is sold to early backers of the project in exchange for legal tender or other cryptocurrencies, but usually for Bitcoin…During the ICO campaign, enthusiasts and supporters of the firm’s initiative buy some of the distributed cryptocoins with fiat or virtual currency. These coins are referred to as tokens and are similar to shares of a company sold to investors in an Initial Public Offering (IPO) transaction.” (Investopedia.)

Tokens. “In the blockchain world, a token is a tiny fraction of a cryptocurrency (bitcoin, ether, etc) that has a value usually less than 1/1000th of a cent, so the value is essentially nothing, but it can still go onto the blockchain…This sliver of currency can carry code that represents value in the real world — the ownership of a diamond, a plot of land, a dollar, a share of stock, another cryptocurrency, etc. Tokens represent ownership of the underlying asset and can be traded freely. One way to understand it is that you can trade physical gold, which is expensive and difficult to move around, or you can just trade tokens that represent gold. In most cases, it makes more sense to trade the token than the asset. Tokens can always be redeemed for their underlying asset, though that can often be a difficult and expensive process. Though technically they could be redeemed, many tokens are designed never to be redeemed but traded forever. On the other hand, a ticket is a token that is designed to be redeemed and may or may not be trade-able” (TokenFactory.)

“Tokens in the ethereum ecosystem can represent any fungible tradable good: coins, loyalty points, gold certificates, IOUs, in game items, etc. Since all tokens implement some basic features in a standard way, this also means that your token will be instantly compatible with the ethereum wallet and any other client or contract that uses the same standards. (

“The most important takehome is that tokens are not equity, but are more similar to paid API keys. Nevertheless, they may represent a >1000X improvement in the time-to-liquidity and a >100X improvement in the size of the buyer base relative to traditional means for US technology financing — like a Kickstarter on steroids.” (Thoughts on Tokens, by Balaji S. Srinivasan.)

“A blockchain token is a digital token created on a blockchain as part of a decentralized software protocol. There are many different types of blockchain tokens, each with varying characteristics and uses. Some blockchain tokens, like Bitcoin, function as a digital currency. Others can represent a right to tangible assets like gold or real estate. Blockchain tokens can also be used in new protocols and networks to create distributed applications. These tokens are sometimes also referred to as App Coins or Protocol Tokens. These types of tokens represent the next phase of innovation in blockchain technology, and the potential for new types of business models that are decentralized – for example, cloud computing without Amazon, social networks without Facebook, or online marketplaces without eBay. However, there are a number of difficult legal questions surrounding blockchain tokens. For example, some tokens, depending on their features, may be subject to US federal or state securities laws. This would mean, among other things, that it is illegal to offer them for sale to US residents except by registration or exemption. Similar rules apply in many other countries. (A Securities Law Framework for Blockchain Tokens.)

In fact tokens go back. All the way.

In Before Writing Volume I: From Counting to Cuneiform, Denise Schmandt-Besserat writes, “Tokens can be traced to the Neolithic period starting about 8000 B.C. They evolved following the needs of the economy, at first keeping track of the products of farming…The substitution of signs for tokens was the first step toward writing.” (For a compression of her vast scholarship on the matter, read Tokens: their Significance for the Origin of Counting and Writing.

I sense that we are now at a threshold no less pregnant with possibilities than we were when ancestors in Mesopotamia rolled clay into shapes, made marks on them and invented t-commerce.

And here is a running list of sources I’ve visited, so far:

You’re welcome.

To improve it, that is.


On a mailing list that obsesses about All Things Networking, another member cited what he called “the Doc Searls approach” to something. Since it was a little off (though kind and well-intended), I responded with this (lightly edited):

The Doc Searls approach is to put as much agency as possible in the hands of individuals first, and self-organized groups of individuals second. In other words, equip demand to engage and drive supply on customers’ own terms and in their own ways.

This is supported by the wide-open design of TCP/IP in the first place, which at least models (even if providers don’t fully give us) an Archimedean place to stand, and a wide-open market for levers that help us move the world—one in which the practical distance between everyone and everything rounds to zero.

To me this is a greenfield that has been mostly fallow for the duration. There are exceptions (and encouraging those is my personal mission), but mostly what we live with are industrial age models that assume from the start that the most leveraged agency is central, and that all the most useful intelligence (lately with AI and ML being the most hyper-focused on and fantasized about) should naturally be isolated inside corporate giants with immense data holdings and compute factories.

Government oversight of these giants and what they do is nigh unthinkable, much less do-able. While regulators aplenty know and investigate the workings of oil refineries and nuclear power plants, there are no equivalents for Google’s, Facebook’s or Amazon’s vast refineries of data and plants doing AI, ML and much more. All the expertise is working for those companies or selling their skills in the marketplace. (The public minded work in universities, I suppose.) I don’t lament this, by the way. I just note that it pretty much can’t happen.

More importantly, we have seen, over and over, that compute powers of many kinds will be far more leveraged for all when individuals can apply them. We saw that when computing got personal, when the Internet gave everybody a place to operate on a common network that spanned the world, and when both could fit in a hand-held rectangle.

The ability for each of us to not only drive prices individually, but to retrieve the virtues of the bazaar to the networked marketplace, will eventually win out. In the meantime it appears the best we can do is imagine that the full graces of computing and networks are what only big companies can do for (and to) us.

Bonus link: a talk I gave last week in Munich.

So I thought it might be good to surface that here. At least it partly explains why I’ve been working more and blogging less lately.


Before we start, let me explain that ATSC 1.0 is the HDTV standard, and defines what you get from HDTV stations over the air and cable. It dates from the last millennium. Resolution currently maxes out at 1080i, which fails to take advantage even the lowest-end HDTVs sold today, which are 1080p (better than 1080i).

Your new 4K TV or computer screen has 4x the resolution and “upscales” the ATSC picture it gets over the air or from cable. But actual 4k video looks better. Sources for that include satellite TV providers (DirectTV and Dish) and streaming services (Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, etc.).

In other words, the TV broadcast industry is to 4K video what AM radio is to FM. (Or what both are to streaming.)

This is why our new FCC chairman is stepping up for broadcasters. In FCC’s Pai Proposes ATSC 3.0 Rollout, John Eggerton (@eggerton) of B&C (Broadcasting & Cable) begins,

New FCC chairman Ajit Pai signaled Thursday that he wants broadcasters to be able to start working on tomorrow’s TV today.

Pai, who has only been in the job since Jan. 20, wasted no time prioritizing that goal. He has already circulated a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to the other commissioners that would allow TV stations to start rolling out the ATSC 3.0 advanced TV transmission standard on a voluntary basis. He hopes to issue final authorization for the new standard by the end of the year, he said in an op ed in B&C explaining the importance of the initiative.

“Next Gen TV matters because it will let broadcasters offer much better services in a variety of ways,” Pai wrote. “Picture quality will improve with 4K transmissions. Accurate sound localization and customizable sound mixes will produce an immersive audio experience. Broadcasters will be able to provide advanced emergency alerts with more information, more tailored to a viewer’s particular location. Enhanced personalization and interactivity will enable better audience measurement, which in turn will make for higher-quality advertising—ads relevant to you and that you actually might want to see. Perhaps most significantly, consumers will easily be able to watch over-the-air programming on mobile devices.”

Three questions here.

  1. Re: personalization, will broadcasters and advertisers agree to our terms rather than vice versa? Term #1: #NoStalking. So far, I doubt it. (Not that the streamers are ready either, but they’re more likely to listen.)
  2. How does this square with the Incentive Auction, which—if it succeeds—will get rid of most over the air TV?
  3. What will this do for (or against) cable, which is having a helluva time wedging too many channels into its available capacities already, and do it by compressing the crap out of everything, filling the screen with artifacts (those sections of skin or ball fields that look plaid or pixelated).

Personally, I think both over the air and cable TV are dead horses walking, and ATSC 3.0 won’t save them. We’ll still have cable, but will use it mostly to watch and interact with streams, most of which will come from producers and distributors that were Net-native in the first place.

But I could be wrong about any or all of this. Either way (or however), tell me how.



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amsterdam-streetImagine you’re on a busy city street where everybody who disagrees with you disappears.

We have that city now. It’s called media—especially the social kind.

You can see how this works on Wall Street Journal‘s Blue Feed, Red Feed page. Here’s a screen shot of the feed for “Hillary Clinton” (one among eight polarized topics):


Both invisible to the other.

We didn’t have that in the old print and broadcast worlds, and still don’t, where they persist. (For example, on news stands, or when you hit SCAN on a car radio.)

But we have it in digital media.

Here’s another difference: a lot of the stuff that gets shared is outright fake. There’s a lot of concern about that right now:


Why? Well, there’s a business in it. More eyeballs, more advertising, more money, for more eyeballs for more advertising. And so on.

Those ads are aimed by tracking beacons planted in your phones and browsers, feeding data about your interests, likes and dislikes to robot brains that work as hard as they can to know you and keep feeding you more stuff that stokes your prejudices. Fake or not, what you’ll see is stuff you are likely to share with others who do the same. This business that pays for this is called “adtech,” also known as “interest based” or “interactive” advertising. But those are euphemisms. Its science is all about stalking. They can plausibly deny it’s personal. But it is.

The “social” idea is “markets as conversations” (a personal nightmare for me, gotta say). The business idea is to drag as many eyeballs as possible across ads that are aimed by the same kinds of creepy systems. The latter funds the former.

Rather than unpack that, I’ll leave that up to the rest of ya’ll, with a few links:


I want all the help I can get unpacking this, because I’m writing about it in a longer form than I’m indulging in here. Thanks.


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cropped-wst-logo-main[3 December update: Here is a video of the panel.]

So I was on a panel at WebScience@10 in London (@WebScienceTrust, #WebSci10), where the first question asked was, “What are two aspects of ‘trust and the Web’ that you think are most relevant/important at the moment?” My answer went something like this::::

1) The Net is young, and the Web with it.

Both were born in their current forms on 30 April 1995, when the NSFnet backed off on its forbidding commercial traffic on its pipes. This opened the whole Net to absolutely everything, exactly when the graphical Web browser became fully useful.

Twenty-one years in the history of a world is nothing. We’re still just getting started here.

2) The Internet, like nature, did not come with privacy. And privacy is personal. We need to start there.

We arrived naked in this new world, and — like Adam and Eve — still don’t have clothing and shelter.

The browser should have been a private tool in the first place, but it wasn’t; and it won’t be, so long as we leave improving it mostly up to companies with more interest in violating our privacy than providing it.

Just 21 years into this new world, we still need our own clothing, shelter, vehicles and private spaces. Browsers included. We will only get privacy if our tools provide it as a simple fact.

We also need to be the first parties, rather than the second ones, in our social and business agreements. In other words, others need to accept our terms, rather than vice versa. As first parties, we are independent. As second parties, we are dependent. Simple as that. Without independence, without agency, without the ability to initiate, without the ability to obtain agreement on our own terms, it’s all just more of the same old industrial model.

In the physical world, our independence earns respect, and that’s what we give to others as a matter of course. Without that respect, we don’t have civilization. This is why the Web we have today is still largely uncivilized.

We can only civilize the Net and the Web by inventing digital clothing and doors for people, and by providing standard agreements private individuals can assert in their dealings with others.

Inventing yet another wannabe unicorn to provide “privacy as a service” won’t do it. Nor will regulating the likes of Facebook and Google, or expecting them to become interested in building protections, when their businesses depend on the absence of those protections.

Fortunately, work has begun on personal privacy tools, and agreements we can each assert. And we can talk about those.



Ingeyes Google Has Quietly Dropped Ban on Personally Identifiable Web Tracking, @JuliaAngwin and @ProPublica unpack what the subhead says well already: “Google is the latest tech company to drop the longstanding wall between anonymous online ad tracking and user’s names.”

So here’s a message from humanity to Google and all the other spy organizations in the surveillance economy: Tracking is no less an invasion of privacy in apps and browsers than it is in homes, cars, purses, pants and wallets.

That’s because our apps and browsers, like the devices on which we use them, are personal and private. Simple as that. (HT to @Apple for digging that fact.)

To help the online advertising business understand what ought to be obvious (but isn’t yet), let’s clear up some misconceptions:

  1. Tracking people without their clear and conscious permission is wrong. (Meaning The Castle Doctrine should apply online no less than it does in the physical world.)
  2. Assuming that using a browser or an app constitutes some kind of “deal” to allow tracking is wrong. (Meaning implied consent is not the real thing. See The Tradeoff Fallacy: How Marketers Are Misrepresenting American Consumers and Opening Them Up to Exploitation, by Joseph Turow, Ph.D. and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.)
  3. Claiming that advertising funds the “free” Internet is wrong. (The Net has been free for the duration. Had it been left up to the billing companies of the world, we never would have had it, and they never would have made their $trillions on it. More at New Clues.)

What’s right is civilization, which relies on manners. Advertisers, their agencies and publishers haven’t learned manners yet.

But they will.

At the very least, regulations will force companies harvesting personal data to obey those they harvest it from, with fines for not obeying. Toward that end, Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation already has compliance offices at large corporations shaking in their boots, for good reason: “a fine up to 20,000,000 EUR, or in the case of an undertaking, up to 4% of the total worldwide annual turnover of the preceding financial year, whichever is higher (Article 83, Paragraph 5 & 6).” Those come into force in 2018. Stay tuned.

Companies harvesting personal data also shouldn’t be surprised to find themselves re-classified as fiduciaries, no less responsible than accountants, brokers and doctors for confidentiality on behalf of the people they collect data from. (Thank you, professors Balkin and Zittrain, for that legal and rhetorical hack. Brilliant, and well done. Or begun.)

The only way to fully fix publishing, advertising and surveillance-corrupted business in general is to equip individuals with terms they can assert in dealing with others online — and to do it at scale. Meaning we need terms that work the same way across all the companies we deal with. That’s why Customer Commons and Kantara are working on exactly those terms. For starters. And these will be our terms — not separate and different ones that live at each company we deal with. Those aren’t working now, and never will work, because they can’t. And they can’t because when you have to deal with as many different terms as there are parties supplying them, the problem becomes unmanageable, and you get screwed. That’s why —

There’s a new sheriff on the Net, and it’s the individual. Who isn’t a “user,” by the way. Or a “consumer.” With new terms of our own, we’re the first party. The companies we deal with are second parties. Meaning that they are the users, and the consumers, of our legal “content.” And they’ll like it too, because we actually want to do good business with good companies, and are glad to make deals that work for both parties. Those include expressions of true loyalty, rather than the coerced kind we get from every “loyalty” card we carry in our purses and wallets.

When we are the first parties, we also get scale. Imagine changing your terms, your contact info, or your last name, for every company you deal with — and doing that in one move. That can only happen when you are the first party.

So here’s a call to action.

If you want to help blow up the surveillance economy by helping develop much better ways for demand and supply to deal with each other, show up next week at the Computer History Museum for VRM Day and the Internet Identity Workshop, where there are plenty of people already on the case.

Then follow the work that comes out of both — as if your life depends on it. Because it does.

And so does the economy that will grow atop true privacy online and the freedoms it supports. Both are a helluva lot more leveraged than the ill-gotten data gains harvested by the Lumascape doing unwelcome surveillance.

Bonus links:

  1. All the great research Julia Angwin & Pro Publica have been doing on a problem that data harvesting companies have been causing and can’t fix alone, even with government help. That’s why we’re doing the work I just described.
  2. What Facebook Knows About You Can Matter Offline, an OnPoint podcast featuring Julia, Cathy O’Neill and Ashkan Soltani.
  3. Everything by Shoshana Zuboff. From her home page: “’I’ve dedicated this part of my life to understanding and conceptualizing the transition to an information civilization. Will we be the masters of information, or will we be its slaves? There’s a lot of work to be done, if we are to build bridges to the kind of future that we can call “home.” My new book on this subject, Master or Slave? The Fight for the Soul of Our Information Civilization, will be published by Public Affairs in the U.S. and Eichborn in Germany in 2017.” Can’t wait.
  4. Don Marti’s good thinking and work with Aloodo and other fine hacks.


Who Owns the Mobile Experience? is a report by Unlockd on mobile advertising in the U.K. To clarify the way toward an answer, the report adds, “mobile operators or advertisers?”

The correct answer is neither. Nobody’s experience is “owned” by somebody else.

True, somebody else may cause a person’s experience to happen. But causing isn’t the same as owning.

We own our selves. That includes our experiences.

This is an essential distinction. For lack of it, both mobile operators and advertisers are delusional about their customers and consumers. (That’s an important distinction too. Operators have customers. Advertisers have consumers. Customers pay, consumers may or may not. That the former also qualifies as the latter does not mean the distinction should not be made. Sellers are far more accountable to customers than advertisers are to consumers.)

It’s interesting that Unlockd’s survey shows almost identically high levels of delusion by advertisers and operators…

  • 85% of advertisers and 82% of operators “think the mobile ad experience is positive for end users”
  • 3% of advertisers and 1% of operators admit “it could be negative”
  • Of the 85% of advertisers who think the experience is positive, 50% “believe it’s because products advertised are relevant to the end user”
  • “the reasons for this opinion is driven from the belief that users are served detail around products that are relevant to them.”

… while:

  • 47% of consumers think “the mobile phone ad experience (for them) is positive”
  • 39% of consumers “think ads are irrelevant
  • 36% blame “poor or irritating format”
  • 40% “believe the volume of ads served to them are a main reason for the negative experience”

It’s amazing but not surprising to me that mobile operators apparently consider their business to be advertising more than connectivity. This mindset is also betrayed by AT&T charging a premium for privacy and Comcast wanting to do the same. (Advertising today, especially online, does not come with privacy. Quite the opposite, in fact. A great deal of it is based on tracking people. Shoshana Zuboff calls this surveillance capitalism.)

Years ago, when I consulted BT, JP Rangaswami (@jobsworth), then BT’s Chief Scientist, told me phone companies’ core competency was billing, not communications. Since those operators clearly wish to be in the “content” business now, and to make money the same way print and broadcast did for more than a century, it makes sense that they imagine themselves now to be one-way conduits for ad-fortified content, and not just a way people and things (including the ones called products and companies) can connect to each other.

The FCC and other regulators need to bear this in mind as they look at what operators are doing to the Internet. I mean, it’s good and necessary for regulators to care about neutrality and privacy of Internet services, but a category error is being made if regulators fail to recognize that the operators want to be “content distributors” on the models of commercial broadcasting (funded by advertising) and the post office (funded by junk mail, which is the legacy model of today’s personalized direct response advertising  online).

I also have to question how consumers were asked by this survey about their mobile ad experiences. Let me see a show of hands: how many here consider their mobile phone ad experience “positive?” Keep your hands down if you are associated in any way with advertising, phone companies or publishing. When I ask this question, or one like it (e.g. “Who here wants to see ads on their phone?”) in talks I give, the number of raised hands is usually zero. If it’s not, the few parties with raised hands offer qualified responses, such as, “I’d like to see coupons when I’m in a store using a shopping app.”

Another delusion of advertisers and operators is that all ads should be relevant. They don’t need to be. In fact, the most valuable ads are not targeted personally, but across populations, so large populations can become familiar with advertised products and services.

It’s a simple fact that branding wouldn’t exist without massive quantities of ads being shown to people for whom the ads are irrelevant. Few of us would know the brands of Procter & Gamble, Unilever, L’Oreal, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, General Motors, Volkswagen, Mars or McDonald’s (the current top ten brand advertisers worldwide) if not for the massive amounts of money those companies spend advertising to people who will never buy their products but will damn sure known those products’ names. (Don Marti explains this well.)

A hard fact that the advertising industry needs to face is that there is very little appetite for ads on the receiving end. People put up with it on TV and radio, and in print, but for the most part they don’t like it. (The notable exceptions are print ads in fashion magazines and other high-quality publications. And classifieds.)

Appetites for ads, and all forms of content, should be consumers’ own. This means consumers need to be able to specify the kind of advertising they’re looking for, if any.

Even then, the far more valuable signal coming from consumers is (or will be) an actual desire for certain products and services. In marketing lingo, these signals are qualified leads. In VRM lingo, these signals  are intentcasts. With intentcasting, the customers do the advertising, and are in full control of the process. And they are no longer mere consumers (which Jerry Michalski calls “gullets with wallets and eyeballs”).

It helps that there are dozens of companies in this business already.

So it would be far more leveraged for operators to work with those companies than with advertising systems so disconnected from reality that they’ve caused hundreds of millions of people to block ads on their mobile devices — and are in such deep denial of the market’s clear messages that they deny the legitimacy of a clear personal choice, misdirecting attention toward the makers of ad blocking tools, and away from what’s actually happening: people asserting power over their own lives and private spaces (e.g. their browsers) online.

If companies actually believe in free markets, they need to believe in free customers. Those are people who, at the very least, are in charge of their own experiences in the networked world.


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doc036cThe NYTimes says the Mandarins of language are demoting the Internet to a common noun. It is to be just “internet” from now on. Reasons:

Thomas Kent, The A.P.’s standards editor, said the change mirrored the way the word was used in dictionaries, newspapers, tech publications and everyday life.

In our view, it’s become wholly generic, like ‘electricity or the ‘telephone,’ ” he said. “It was never trademarked. It’s not based on any proper noun. The best reason for capitalizing it in the past may have been that the word was new. But at one point, I’ve heard, ‘phonograph’ was capitalized.”

But we never called electricity “the Electricity.” And “the telephone” referred to a single thing of which there billions of individual examples.

What was it about “the Internet” that made us want to capitalize it in the first place? Is usage alone reason enough to stop respecting that?

Some of my tech friends say the “Internet” we’ve had for all these years is just one prototype: the first and best-known of many other possible ones.

All due respect, but: bah.

There is only one Internet just like there is only one Universe. There are other examples of neither.

Formalizing the lower-case “internet,” for whatever reason, dismisses what’s transcendent and singular about the Internet we have: a whole that is more, and other, than a sum of parts.

I know it looks like the Net is devolving into many separate systems, isolated and silo’d to some degree. We see that with messaging, for example. Hundreds of different ones, most of them incompatible, on purpose. We have specialized mobile systems that provide variously open vs. sphinctered access (such as T-Mobile’s “binge” allowance for some content sources but not others), zero-rated not-quite-internets (such as Facebook’s Free Basics) and countries such as China, where many domains and uses are locked out.

Some questions…

Would we enjoy a common network by any name today if the Internet had been lower-case from the start?

Would makers or operators of any of the parts that comprise the Internet’s whole feel any fealty to what at least ought to be the common properties of that whole? Or would they have made sure that their parts only got along, at most, with partners’ parts? Would the first considerations by those operators not have been billing and tariffs agreed to by national regulators?

Hell, would the four of us have written The Cluetrain Manifesto? Would David Weinberger and I have written World of Ends or New Clues if the Internet had lacked upper-case qualities?

Would the world experience absent distance and cost across a The Giant Zero in its midst were it not for the Internet’s founding design, which left out billing proprietary routing on purpose?

Would we have anything resembling the Internet of today if designing and building it had been left up to phone and cable companies? Or to governments (even respecting the roles government activities did play in creating the Net we do have)?

I think the answer to all of those would be no.

In The Compuserve of Things, Phil Windley begins, “On the Net today we face a choice between freedom and captivity, independence and dependence. How we build the Internet of Things has far-reaching consequences for the humans who will use—or be used by—it. Will we push forward, connecting things using forests of silos that are reminiscent the online services of the 1980’s, or will we learn the lessons of the Internet and build a true Internet of Things?”

Would he, or anybody, ask such questions, or aspire to such purposes, were it not for the respect many of us pay to the upper-cased-ness of “the Internet?”

How does demoting Internet from proper to common noun not risk (or perhaps even assure) its continued devolution to a collection of closed and isolated parts that lack properties (e.g. openness and commonality) possessed only by the whole?

I don’t know. But I think these kinds of questions are important to ask, now that the keepers of usage standards have demoted what the Net’s creators made — and ignore why they made it.

If you care at all about this, please dig‘s Locking the Web open: a Call for a Distributed Web, Brewster Kahle’s post by the same title, covering more ground, and the Decentralized Web Summit, taking place on June 8-9. (I’ll be there in spirit. Alas, I have other commitments on the East Coast.)

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